Ethos Capital, a private equity firm, announced late last year that it would buy the rights to dot-org for more than $1 billion from the advocacy organization the Internet Society. The Internet Society today controls the Public Interest Registry, which is responsible for the hands-on running of dot-org; under the deal, PIR would continue to operate as it does today — but under the charge of a for-profit firm responsible to shareholders, rather than a nonprofit responsible, ostensibly, to the public and to the other nonprofits that live on dot-org sites.
The arrangement has many of those nonprofits worried. Ethos Capital, they say, will want to make back that $1 billion and deliver a return to investors while it’s at it. That could mean an increase in prices, and it could also means deals with corporations that influence how PIR runs its registry. At worst, they say, it could mean censorship as Ethos tries to cut down on content it declares (or third parties complain) is abusive. Ethos responds that it plans to set up a stewardship council that will ratify anti-censorship rules, and that it’s also willing to commit to capping price increases — to which critics shoot back there are no teeth to bite the firm if it breaks that promise. They want overseeing body ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, to block the deal.
This is a story of corporate squabbling, but it’s also a story of squabbling over the reality that the Internet has become corporate. Ethos makes the point that the Web is evolving and dot-org needs to evolve with it. More money for the registry means more ability to innovate and to lure in additional registrants with those innovations that will, in turn, produce more money. This is a virtuous cycle for any good capitalist, but it looks like a vicious one to many Internet pioneers who envisioned a space that liberated its occupants from the mundane commercialism of everyday life — and who bemoan that it has instead become its own “industrial complex.”
The idea that dot-org was truly an immaculate corner of the Web has long been a bit of an illusion. Many dot-org registrants already aren’t nonprofits, for instance, and individual groups or people seeking domain names already have to go through for-profit registrars such as GoDaddy or Bluehost to get them. Whatever practical worries Ethos Capital’s control would pose, the greater concern might be more philosophical: The Web has gotten away from us, and the end of dot-org as we know it feels a lot like giving up.